Friday, 11 August 2023

Thoughts on D3 Vault of the Drow, Part 1

“All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
― Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

D3 Vault of the Drow
Shall you? – abandon all hope? I expect not, you who’ve already delved this deeply. You’ve faced ever greater challenges, and ever more dire foes to face what you expect to be the ultimate threat to the surface nations from their hitherto unknown enemy.
As a member of a bold party of adventurers, you and your associates have trekked far into what seems to be a whole underworld of subterranean tunnels—arteries connecting endless caves and caverns which honeycomb the foundations of the lands beneath the sun. [D3 Vault of the Drow – 2]

It’s been a long road, hasn’t it? It must seem ages ago since [g]iants have been raiding the lands of men in large bands, with giants of different sorts in these marauding groups. [G123 Against the Giants – 2]
It seemed such a simple mission then: deliver a sharp check, deal a lesson to the clan of hill giants nearby. [G123 – 2]
But that mission led from one to another: from Nosnra’s steading, to Jarl Grugnur’s glacial rift, and finally unto King Snurre’s sulphurous hall. None could have imagined that long-forgotten dark elves, the drow, were behind the attacks, one drow specifically: Eclavdra, a devotee of an Elder Elemental God, whose temples have fouled nearly everywhere our heroes have searched thus far.
The drow were defeated, and caused to flee in light of their failure; but would they be back? One assumes they surely would be. But when? A year from now? A decade? A century hence?
Our heroes were tasked to find out!
They are to follow any clues discovered if such point towards the sinister hand suspected of guiding the rising, but to return at once if they should determine exactly the reason or force behind the unholy alliance. Some relic of great evil might be at hand. [G123 – 2]

Long story short, a band of heroes does venture into the depths of the Oerth to discover just that, enduring dangers never before encountered, or even imagined.
Overcoming Mind Flayers
Overcoming wererats and mind flayers, Drow patrols and their minions, your group managed to cross a vast subterranean river in the face of a mad fish-man, a KuoToan of exceptional abilities and strength; and after days of journeying through corridors hewn from living rock, discovered an underground temple of the Kuo-Toan fish-men where an idol of their repulsive goddess, Blibdoolpoolp, had to be venerated by all who would pass through […].
All along the route, signs of the insidious Drow have been noted. It is now evident that the Dark Elves pass freely throughout this underworld, but it is just as evident that these evil elves are hated and feared by the other intelligent races inhabiting the subterranean lands. This does not give cause to hope that your party will receive any substantial aid, for most of the creatures dwelling in the sunless places beneath the earth are as evil as the Drow. There are Deep Gnomes, the Svirfnebli, who might help, but the vast majority of the denizens of the underworld are as inimical to you as are the Dark Elves, and that enemy will certainly be alert, not complacent, as they too must deal with powerful enemies continually in order to survive in this grim and ghastly underworld. [D3 Vault of the Drow – 2]

Belgos & Silussa
Which brings us to D3 Vault of the Drow. The module is a departure from D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth and D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and not. It’s similar to those two insofar as there are a few possible encounters prior to its main encounter area – the focal piece, if you will. Each are evocative. AREA Q2 49, a pre-city drow stronghold, is a bottleneck. The next, AREA R2 47 – perhaps the most interesting – involves a drow vampire and a succubus. The last, AREA U2 48, is less interesting than the others, what I might consider a standard-type cavern encounter, a spider lair. Not all need be encountered; in fact, only the stronghold might be. What any of them adds to the adventure is debateable. Flavour, mostly. All are well detailed; none are particularly well mapped. They only exist to flesh out the pages, to my mind.

Drow of the Underoerth
The final challenge lies beyond these. Or is it? We all know, those of us of a certain age, that Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits awaits, following this one, but it need not: this “adventure” could very well end Gary Gygax’s adventure path, because, if our heroes’ quest is to put an end to the drow threat to the surface world, our heroes need not defeat the drow, or Lolth, for that matter; your heroes need only put an end to Eclavdra’s machinations.
Could your heroes put an end to the drow threat? For course not. There isn’t actually a drow threat. The drow are “a people,” not an Level Boss. Should they try, their fate would be sealed, in short order too. So says Gary Gygax.
(The adventure is all over for the party if they are still there. All escape will be blocked, so just tell them a heroic struggle results in death for many of the Drow and their allies, but all of the party eventually fall. Finis.) [D3 – 12]
The take-away is stealth is their only hope to accomplish what they’ve come to do.

I ramble. Not a good thing. I must be forgiven, however, because if I am to be condemned for doing so, so must Gary Gygax. If you’ve ever read D3 you know what I mean. This “module” is a hard read. It’s scattered. It’s not even a module, it’s the culmination of an investigation; in fact, it’s an accessory, a setting.
It’s also a reprint of a whole lot of previously published material. Encounter tables prior to entering the vault are identical to those in D2. Drow, Kuo-Toa, and Svirfnebli treatments are either copied verbatim, or condensed from G123 and D1-2. Their inclusion would be a good thing if this were the only module of the D series you have; but what are the chances of that? You likely bought the whole series. So why is all this – what some might call – superfluous material included? Because that’s what was done then. Modules had encounter tables. Modules had “new” monsters included in the last few pages. They aren’t new, though, are they. Thus: filler!
What is new? Abundant florid text about the vault, and what characters will “see.”
The true splendor of the Vault can be appreciated only by those with infravision, or by use of the roseate lenses or a gem of seeing. The Vault is a strange anomaly, a hemispherical cyst in the crust of the earth, an incredibly huge domed fault over 6 miles long and nearly as broad. The dome overhead is a hundred feet high at the walls, arching to several thousand feet height in the center. When properly viewed, the radiation from certain unique minerals give the visual effect of a starry heaven, while near the zenith of this black stone bowl is a huge mass of tumkeoite — which in its slow decay and transformation to lacofcite sheds a lurid gleam, a ghostly plum-colored light to human eyes, but with ultravision a wholly different sight.
The small "star" nodes glow in radiant hues of mauve, lake, violet, puce, lilac, and deep blue. The large "moon" of tumkeoite casts beams of shimmering amethyst which touch the crystalline formations with colors unknown to any other visual experience. The lichens seem to glow in rose madder and pale damson, the fungi growths in golden and red ochres, vermillions, russets, citron, and aquamarine shades. (Elsewhere the river and other water courses sheen a deep velvety purple with reflected highlights from the radiant gleams overhead vying with streaks and whorls of old silver where the liquid laps the stony banks or surges against the ebon piles of the jetties and bridge of the elfin city for the viewers' attention.) The rock walls of the Vault appear hazy and insubstantial in the wine-colored light, more like mist than solid walls. The place is indeed a dark fairyland. [D3 – 11]
Some might call this “High Gygaxian.” I call it purple prose. Imagine what might have been included, if Gygax had limited his pages of descriptive text, opting for other… stuff….

I rant. Not a good thing. We do get more, thankfully – a lot more, actually.
We get a map of the vault, indicating where all the merchant clans are.
There are 16 of these multiple building strongholds, 1 for each clan. […] Each villa consists of a walled compound with a large (c. 20 room) house surrounding a private fungi garden built into one wall, a stable for the pack lizards with barracks above to one side of the compound, several smaller buildings (3-5 rooms each) and a slaves quarters on the other, and a small gate house. A clan device will be shown above the gate. [D3 – 13]
But there are no maps of those villas.
We get descriptions of Bugbear caves and Troglodyte caves; but no maps. We get detailed descriptions of the Male Fighter Society encampment, and the Female Fighter Society enclave; but no maps.
We get crucial information on what the characters will require if they are to have any hope carrying out their mission: Medallions! They may even already have them.
[I]f the expedition kills the mind flayers and prove their deed to any Drow they happen to meet, it is 90% probable that the Dark Elves will be friendly with the party despite any past conflicts, and if the adventurers express an interest, give them a black medallion-the pass which will enable them to go through Drow areas without undue questioning or molestation! [D1-2 – 3]
Having drow in their debt could prepare them for what they might expect, too:
The stronger lllithid is near the cave pool with a bound Drow merchant captive. The mind flayer is questioning the Dark Elf about the current alliances, power groups, and feuds between the Drow clans and noble houses. If the lllithid gets any chance, he will kill the Drow so no tales can be carried by him. [D1-2 – 7]
Without either, our heroes aren’t going to have an easy entry.
It is the custom house and checkpoint for all aliens entering the Drow homeland. All with medallions are relieved of the devices, questioned briefly regarding the purpose of their visit (trade, sport, gambling, learning, or whatever) and issued a cloak which glows a brilliant lime green infravisually. Such individuals are permitted to move freely to and within the city to the north or even wander about the Vault anywhere south of the great river — at their own risk, of course. Any alien taken without medallion or cloak is instantly slain; those without cloaks beyond this place are either enslaved or slain according to the whim of the Drow. There are exceptions. Aliens with a brooch of one of the merchant clans or noble houses are allowed to keep their special pins and need not wear a green cloak either, but they will be required to display their special pass (the brooch) whenever requested, and woe to the adventurer who fails to have a glib tongue if the interrogator happens to be of the clan or house of the pass (or worse still an enemy of that clan or house). [D3 – 11]

Let’s assume they had medallions and a “guide” in their debt: They enter the vault, and ultimately the city.
This stronghold of the Dark Elvenfolk is countless centuries old. It is surrounded by walls of black stone, 30' high and adorned with crenelated battlements above that. [D3 – 15]
The alien and strangely disturbing buildings of Erelhei-Cinlu are crowded together in a welter which confuse any not born and bred to the place. Its crooked, narrow streets and alleys are dimly illuminated by signs scribed in phosphorescent chemicals and occasional lichen growths or fire beetle cages. Not even the Drow are certain what horrors lurk in the sewers beneath, but the rooftops are home to many sorts of large, huge, and giant spiders. [D3 – 15]
There are new encounter tables for the vault and for Erelhei-Cinlu, the drow city, and descriptions thereof. All very useful. Absolutely none of it is mapped. Not one street, not one tavern, not even one typical street or alleyway. Luckily for us, others have done a great deal of this work in the decades that followed to make up for this egregious oversight.

None of all this, however, will help the DM bring this complex “module” to life.
Admittedly, some passages are very suggestive:
Rakes roaming the streets in Erelhei-Cinlu are bands of bitter youths, often outcasts. The band will be composed of either Drow, Drow-elves, and half-Drow (human cross) or Drow, half-Drow, and (1-2) half-orcs. The former sort of group is 40% likely, the latter 60%. Drow crosses will have magic resistance equal to their Dark Elven heritage but no spell ability. The bands with elven-Drow members will be hostile to all they perceive as part of the system which prevails in their world, and the Dark Elves with them are of the few who are neither totally degenerate nor wholly evil—they are haters of the society around them and see no good in it. All rakes will be fighters of 4th-7th level of ability (or in the case of groups with half-orcs, fighter/thieves of 3rd-5th/4th-7th or fighter/assassins of 4th-6th/4th-6th level are 50% likely for half-Drow and half-orc rakes). The first sort of group will wear chain shirts under their garments (+1 or +2) and have +1 weapons. The latter groups will not wear armor, and they will be likely to have a few +3 weapons. Rakes encountered inside will be seated so as to appear to be several smaller groups. Those outside will be in 2 or 3 groups so as to surround and surprise their victims. All will scatter when a patrol or nobles appear, for they are greatly disliked by the Drow military and upper class. [D3 – 16]
Enemies Abound
Indeed, most of these encounters can bring real life to this maze of a module. But what’s to be done with them all? That’s up to you. Cities are complex, and a drow city of mostly chaotic evil individuals might be even more so. Enemies abound. But potential allies lurk in the shadows, here and there, if you can find them.
Deep Gnomes: These relatives of common gnomes are reclusive creatures of neutral (with good tendencies) alignment. [D3 – 5]
Freed slaves will co-operate fully with rescuers until a place of relative safety is reached. [D3 – 8]
Kuo-Toan spies will always be in or near the water. […] If not in the water, they will be clad in black Drow cloaks and make every attempt to avoid being detected. [D3 – 8]
If the party manages a friendly meeting with a group of Drow/Drow-elves/half-Drow rakes the youths will tell them about the worship of the Demoness Lolth and the way to her "Egg." The rakes will accompany the party to the area in question if a plan which seems reasonable to them is put forth. They will also leave the Vault-Egg areas in the course of adventuring. [D3 – 16]
Thieves will be of several racial types. [D3 – 16]
Neutral magic-users will be open to any reasonable offers, of course… [D3 – 16]
Even drow:
Merchant clans are nominally allied in pairs to a noble house, thus making a perfect balance of power, but due to intrigue and feuding between the merchants and nobles, there is an uneven balance. Feuding and raids are fairly common. [D3 – 14]
There is even more enmity between noble houses. Intrigue and betrayal are everywhere. These are drow, after all. Our heroes are going to have to make contact with one or more of these Merchant Clans and Noble Houses; how else will they any hope of gaining access to Eclavdra’s ESTATE OF THE HOUSE OF EILSERVS, and put an end to her threat?

Speaking of which, consider what is arguably the most important part of this publication:
LANDS OF THE NOBLE FAMILIES: The plateau serves as the exclusive preserve of the Drow nobles. Each of the 8 noble houses has its own estate and a palace-fortress complex thereon. Although there are no forests of fungi and crystal growths, there are small brakes and copses of these things growing along the road and between estate boundaries.
Each estate consists of a large (30+ room) palace surrounded by outbuildings and connecting walls to form a large compound. Outbuildings include 2-4 small villas, barracks, stables, menagerie, and slave quarters. [D3 – 17]
The guards, servants, and slaves are sketched out; so too that displacer beasts and nightmares are within the walls; but as can be expected, none are named (typically Gygaxian, isn’t it?), nor are any estates mapped.

Most importantly, to my mind, Eclavdra’s stats are not given. You have to have G123 (G3, specifically) to have them!
This strangely attractive female is dressed in silver-embroidered black garments, with a small black metal cap which allows her silver hair to float free. She is Eclavdra (10th level cleric/fighter; H.P.: 60, Wisdom 17, Dexterity 18, Constitution 10, Charisma 18; Armor Class -8 = +3 shield, +5 chainmail, and +4 dexterity bonus), the one who fomented all of the trouble. She has a +4 mace on her belt. She wears a ring of amber set with an amethyst (2,500 g.p.) to control her great tentacle rod of 6 violet arms which strike as 6 hit dice monsters, +6 bonus "to hit", and inflict 6 h.p. of damage per hit. If 3 hit simultaneously, the victim is numbed and strikes at -4 on attacks for 3 rounds, and if all 6 hit simultaneously the victim loses 1 point of dexterity, permanently, in addition to being numbed for 6 rounds. She has these spells:
  • First Level: cause light wounds, curse, darkness, fear, resist cold (x2)
  • Second Level: hold person, hold person, know alignment, silence (15' r.), silence (15' r.), silence (15' r.)
  • Third Level: blindness, dispel magic, prayer, disease
  • Fourth Level: cause serious wounds, cure serious wounds, poison
  • Fifth Level: flame strike, true seeing
In addition, all of the Drow can employ the following spells once per day:
  • dancing lights, faerie fire, darkness, detect magic, know alignment, levitate

The EHP'SS is also able to use these spells once per day: clairvoyance, detect lie, suggestion, dispel magic
[G123 – 25]

Okay, I’m lying. She is included in D3. Here she is:
10th/4th cleric/fighter female (Eclavdra*) (HP.: 60; AC-8) [D3 – 18]

Eilservs magic items include the following: great tentacle rod** (strikes 6 times at 1 opponent as 6 hit dice monster, with +6 "to hit" bonus, inflicting 6 h.p. damage/hit, 3 simultaneous – opponent at -4 on attacks for 3 rounds, 6 simultaneous hits and victim loses 1 point of dexterity permanently and at -4 on attacks for 6 rounds in addition), 2 lesser tentacle rods** (strike 3 times each at 1 opponent as 3 hit dice monster, with +3 "to hit" bonus, inflict 3 h.p. damage/hit: 1st rod causes double damage and slows opponent for 9 rounds if 3 tentacles hit simultaneously; 2nd rod causes double damage plus making right or left arm weak and useless for 9 rounds), a wand of viscid globs, a +3 ring of protection, a cold sword, 9 magical bolts for hand crossbows—3 each stunning (10' radius blast stuns for 1-4 rounds), blinding (burst of light in 10' radius blinds all who fail save vs. magic for 1-4 rounds), stinking vapors (a 30' x 30' x 20' cloud of gas which is the same as a stinking cloud spell (q.v.)), an earth elemental stone, and useful items to be determined at random: 5 potions, 6 scrolls, 1 ring, 2 rod/staff/wand, and 3 miscellaneous magic items. Lyme commands a stone golem. [D3 – 18]
[Keep in mind that these are all of the magic items of House Eilserv, and not exclusively Eclavdra’s.]

*If Eclavdra was slain during the course of play of MODULE G1-2-3, she will have been cloned by her consort, Lyme, so in any event she will be ruler.
"If the greater tentacle rod is taken or destroyed, both lesser rods will be destroyed, and Eclavdra will have a rod of rulership; if either or both of the lesser rods are taken or destroyed from previous adventuring, duplicates will be in the possession of the Eilservs. Note all 3 rods must have a special ring worn by the wielder in order to use their powers. They are usable only by clerics, and Eclavdra has the necessary rings. [D3 – 18]

Am I quibbling? I am. Which block of text would you rather have at your disposal?

Inside the Great Fane
What follows is the most puzzling part of this adventure: the Egg of Lolth, and the Great Fane of Lolth, both of which could be considered irrelevant to the story unless you are going to carry on with Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits. Honestly, I can’t imagine why it was ever needed, unless Gary Gygax envisioned the heroes pitting the Elder Elemental God against Lolth…. [There has certainly been a lot of speculation as to what Gary Gygax intended, over the years.] Wasn’t the whole point of this adventure path (G123, D123) to seek out who was behind the Giant raids and put an end to their schemes? Isn’t Eclavdra and House Eilserv behind it all? Why then would our heroes need to assault Lolth’s temple, and ultimately her Demonweb domain at all then?
It's puzzling….
And ultimately inexplicable to me.

I’m being really critical, aren’t I? I am. There’s a lot to be critical of; but there’s also a lot to be said about this module, too. It is incredibly detailed. But like I said earlier, everything important is scattered about, and it will take multiple readings, and detailed notetaking, to figure out what to do with it all. It’s a lot of work. And it will be a lot of work too if you’ve a mind to run it. Then again, so is the Free City of Greyhawk. Or any other city. It’s replete with people: drow, orcs, bugbears, trogs, to say nothing of demons by the dozen; its also chalk full of humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, and halflings too, some of them slaves, some of them there for whatever nefarious reasons they are. It's up to you to decide who they are, what they’re doing, who they’re loyal to, if anyone, and if they are to be a help or a hindrance.

Are these my only thoughts? No. I’ve others.
I’ll try to unravel them in a follow-up to this rambling rant.
Maybe that post will be more focused and coherent than this one.

“Do not be afraid; our fate
Cannot be taken from us; it is a gift.”
― Dante Alighieri, Inferno

One must always give credit where credit is due. This post is made possible primarily by the Imaginings of Gary Gygax and his Old Guard, Lenard Lakofka among them, and the new old guards, Carl Sargant, James Ward, Roger E. Moore. And Erik Mona, Gary Holian, Sean Reynolds, Frederick Weining. The list is interminable.

The Art:
Eclavdra (front cover art), by Erol Otus, from D3 Vault of the Drow, 1980
Mind Flayer (back cover), by Bill Willingham, from D1-2 Descent into the Depths of the Earth, 1980
Belgos & Silussa, by Jeff Dee, from D3 Vault of the Drow, 1980
Drow of the Underoerth, by Grant Goleash, from FOR The Drow of the Underdark 2e, 1991
A Garden of Resplendent Hues, from Drow of the Underdark 3e, 2007
Vault of the Drow map, by Christopher West, from Dragon Magazine #298, 2002
Erelhei-Cinlu, by Tomas Giorello, from Drow of the Underdark 3e, 2007
Erelhei-Cinlu map, by Christopher West, from Dragon Magazine #298, 2002
Arena, by William O'Connor, from Drow of the Underdark 3e, 2007
Eclavdra, by Erol Otus, from D3 Vault of the Drow, 1980
Lolth Statue, by Jeff Dee, from D3 Vault of the Drow, 1980

9025 World of Greyhawk Folio, 1980
1015 World of Greyhawk Boxed Set, 1983
2009 Monster Manual 1e, 1977, 1978
2011 Players handbook 1e, 1978
2011A Dungeon Masters Guide, 1st Ed., 1979
9018 G3 Hall of the Fire Mountain King, 1978
9019 D1 Descent Into the Depths of the Earth, 1978
9020 D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, 1978
9059 D1-2 Descent Into the Depths of the Earth, 1978, 1980
9021 D3 Vault of the Drow, 1978, 1980
9058 G123 Against the Giants, 1978, 1981


  1. I went through this back in the 80s and nearly had a TPK. I later ran my family through it at consecutive Gen Cons recently and had an absolute blast with it.

  2. Greyhawk Grongard wrote two modules (D4 and Q2) to help resolve the issues at the of D3.